Commentary

Rookie duo Kane and Toews growing on fans and teammates alike

Updated: December 15, 2007, 4:29 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Kane and ToewsRoss Dettman for ESPN.comHawks fans, young and old, started arriving at 7 a.m. to meet Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
[Editor's note: Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are two NHL rookies, but they also happen to be the centerpieces of a rebuilding plan in Chicago. ESPN.com is following their progress throughout the 2007-08 season in a series called "Beginner's Puck." Our series continues just past the quarter pole of this season.]

CHICAGO -- Stan Bowman's youngest son, Camden, has seen his vocabulary grow exponentially, courtesy of the family's new lodger, Blackhawk rookie Patrick Kane.

The 2-½ year old can now say "Pat Kane," "Go to practice?," "Go to game?" and "Take a nap."

The toddler may not know it, but he has pretty much summed up Kane's life at the moment.

Sleep, practice, sleep, game, sleep.

Not far away in Brent Seabrook's newly built home, the Chicago defenseman notices a similar pattern with his new tenant, rookie Jonathan Toews.

"He sleeps a lot. He goes to bed every night at 8, 9, 10 o'clock," Seabrook said told ESPN.com this week.

Despite their different personalities and styles, the two talented rookies' instant chemistry and subsequent success has transmogrified them into one hockey organism.

The two have played on the same line for the most part -- Kane's playmaking skills complimenting Toews' nose for the net and ability to control the puck down low.

Media, both locally and in other NHL cities, refer to them universally in one breath, the same way Blackhawks fans used to discuss Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita or consider Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg or Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr or Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.

A recent autograph session at a downtown team store produced a staggering response as more than 2,500 fans showed up for an appearance by the two first-year players.

"You picture it in your head, and when you get there, it's pretty surprising," Toews told ESPN.com after the appearance. "We're still very young, it's still early in our career. And to see that support come out for us, people who've obviously appreciate the way we play and the way we've contributed to the Blackhawks so far. it's awesome. Definitely motivated to keep that up."

As the team's most important assets -- perhaps the single-most important element in turning around years of bad press and fan disinterest in this Original Six city -- the pair's development in the locker room and away from the rink has been a top priority for the team.

Kane's parents, Pat and Donna, for instance, were in close contact with GM Dale Tallon and coach Denis Savard leading up to training camp. The family was determined that Kane, 18 at the time camp began, would be billeted with a local family. It was Stan Bowman, son of legendary coach Scotty Bowman, who offered up his basement to the family. Scotty has long maintained a residence in Buffalo, Kane's hometown, and the Kane family has had some peripheral connection with Bowman through father Pat's business over the years.

Stan's largesse has reduced anxiety for all concerned.

"It's been really good for me and it takes a lot of pressure off of things I have to do with cooking and laundry and little things like that," Patrick Kane said. "I'm 19 years old. I don't really think I've ever done a set of laundry in my life. I probably have to learn it at some time, but now it takes a lot of pressure off me and it's a lot easier and I'm enjoying it right now."

Kane is personable and possesses a surprisingly quick wit. When teammates joked that it was customary for NHL rookies to buy all of their teammates a bottle of wine after they scored their first NHL goal, Kane played along and had his dad buy bottles for the team, all of which were sitting at players' stalls the next day. He has likewise been generous with his time with Bowman's two boys, Camden and Will, who is five. The boys will often carry their mini-hockey sticks to the basement and coax Kane into a game when he returns from practice or after dinner.

[+] EnlargeBlackhawks Fans
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comChicago fans are hoping their two teens can lead the Hawks to their first playoff berth since 2001-02.

"They're pretty fun," Kane said. "Lately, they've been coming down to my room after dinner; we'll just watch TV and just joke around. They're really cute and it's fun because I remember that I was at that age once and looking up to hockey players too and you've got to realize those things."

Kane has a bedroom and bathroom in the basement. He'll eat dinner with the family if he's not on the road. And, like most teenagers, he'll take out the trash and straighten up, if he's asked. No curfew violations, no complaints about loud music.

"I wish I had some stories for you," said Bowman, the Blackhawks' assistant general manager of hockey operations.

One night, he was surprised to get a phone call after a home game from Kane. He was telling Bowman he was going to get something to eat with his teammates and that he'd be home later.

"This is the best place for him. It couldn't have worked out better," Donna Kane said after relating the story of the phone call, something she would have expected if her son was still at home in Buffalo.

"He's a pretty easy kid to get along with. He's a normal 19-year-old kid. He just happens to be a helluva hockey player," Bowman said.

The napping is a nod to the rigors of NHL life. Kane, the NHL's leading rookie scorer with 28 points in 29 games, is averaging 18:24 a night in ice time. Toews, who has 21 points in 27 games and is second among first-year scorers, is averaging 18:37.

"It's something for us right away that we've definitely got to get used to," Kane said. "And I know, for me, sleep is a big thing, so I've got to make sure I get my nap. If it's not every day, then I've got to go to bed earlier."

Toews, likewise, makes no apologies for sawing logs when many might expect him to be howling at the moon.

"I just feel like it's one of those things," Toews said. "You've got to be rested to perform. It's one of those things that I take seriously. I want to play well, so I've got to get my sleep ... it's pretty important to me."

Seabrook has been impressed with the dedication and discipline Toews has shown.

"The way he carries himself is just incredible," Seabrook said.

The pair will often go shopping and eat dinners together and will frequently retire to the basement game room for a rousing video game -- "Guitar Hero" being the current favorite.

"He goes through cereal like crazy," Seabrook said.

Toews left home at age 15 to play hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary's, the famous prep school hockey factory in Faribault, Minn., that has hosted the likes of Sidney Crosby, among others. After two subsequent years at the University of North Dakota, Toews finds himself in the bright lights of Chicago.

"There's not a lot of big surprises. There's a lot of things you anticipate about the NHL, the lifestyle these guys live," Toews said. "Obviously, a lot of great ways to socialize, especially for Patrick and I still being young and not being able to go out. We still go out to the restaurants and hang out with the guys. There's lots of things for us to do, too.

"I think I've been able to handle the schedule and everything that's been thrown at me pretty well, considering what I've been through. I mean, the experiences that I've had, going to college, even leaving home at 15 years old, I think that whole process has helped me to deal with anything that's new."

He does plan on expanding his repertoire in the kitchen.

"I know I haven't cooked a whole lot this year," Toews said. "I'm going to start working on that, start looking through a few cookbooks."

For most rookies, their inaugural season is a nonstop lesson in pro hockey -- the travel, the lifestyle, the attention. By all accounts, from media to teammates to coaches and managers, Kane and Toews are at the top of the class. That doesn't mean there aren't trials, however.

The two have hit what might be considered a bit of a wall in recent games. Kane had not scored in 12 straight games prior to Wednesday's game with Los Angeles. Toews was pointless in seven of his last 10 games before that tilt. It's a function of not only of being rookies, but also the fact that opposing teams are launching their top checkers against them almost every night.

"You've really got to work at it. It's not like juniors, where you can not really prepare for the game and just go in and score three or four points," Kane said. "That's where the older guys have helped me learn that you've got to prepare. You've got to do the little things, like make sure you're working out, make sure you're doing the recovery stuff to help you be the best that you can."

Savard seems nonplussed about either player's stalled production or the attention they've received.

"Youth is great. It creates energy, enthusiasm and they're fun to be around," Savard said. "They come, they work. That's the thing you preach for as a coach, the work ethic, and they do. That's very refreshing."

The Hall of Fame forward, still an icon in Chicago where he played most of his career, figures that players are going to struggle in maybe 10 percent of the games they play.

"You can't ask a player to play 82 straight great games. It's not going to happen even though you like to have it," Savard said. "But you'll see them play 65, 70 good ones, and they're on pace for that."

Tallon, another fixture with the Blackhawks organization as a player and in a variety of front-office roles, admits to having some anxiety about the potential for mischief in a city like Chicago. "There are a lot of temptations in this city. I know. I lived it," Tallon said.

Whatever anxiety about the environs is balanced by his prized rookies' situations and personalities. Tallon marvels at Kane's skill and poise, and suggests that Toews is the kind of lad you'd want your daughter to marry. That's high praise coming from a lifelong hockey man who's seen his share of cads.

The fact the two genuinely like each other and are comfortable not just in their own skins, but the greater skin that has grown up around them, seems to bode well for the future.

New team president John McDonough voiced concerns about the amount of attention and expectation the rookies have faced, but also understands their importance in the challenge to turn this team around.

"It's almost as if they were born to be part of this renaissance," McDonough said. "They came along at the right time."

As for jealousy? Neither seems like the type.

"You might meet some athletes in other sports that would want the spotlight all to themselves, but I think that hasn't been the important thing for us," Toews said. "I know [at the autograph session] a lot of people were asking us about the Calder and stuff like that.

"If they ask him about it, who does he think is going to win the Calder, he'll say me and I'll say him. It's just one of those things. That attention is not important to us and we're more focused on what we can do for the squad. In the end, that's what's going to bring the interest back to Chicago and that's going to make the biggest difference."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.